Rambling on the Nature of D&D

Posted in Dungeons and Dragons with tags , , , on March 15, 2010 by Angry Johnny

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for several days now and have no idea where to begin.  I’d like to write for a bit on what I think Dungeons and Dragons is.

It’s a game, dummy.  It’s not that hard. Well, yes.  It is a game.  But it’s a kind of game that most folk don’t play.  Most of us probably played games like it when we were small, games that could be called make-believe, dress-up, or let’s-pretend.  But then we grew up and games became more structured.  Board games, card games, sports.  Our games, assuming we still played them, became more rigid, less fluid.  Most games that adults play have less room for imagination and more strict adherence to rules.

Dungeons and Dragons is like a return to the games of pretend that we played as children, but with more adult sensibilities.  Sort of.  I’m not telling it right.  While it is kind of like six people sitting around a table pretending to be elves and dwarves and shit, it’s also something more.  It’s like exercising the imagination.  It’s a group storytelling.

Yes, that’s it. It’s group storytelling.  We all sit around a table and tell each other stories.  But we agree on a setting – in this case, a fantasy world – and then we all tell parts of the same story.  The players each take up the duty of telling the story of one of the main characters and the Dungeon Master takes up the duty of telling the story of how the world reacts to the main characters.  That’s not to say that the players have no say in telling the world’s story, too, but that’s a good place to start.

Everyone at the table agrees to stop feeling silly around one another long enough to tell a story together.  They can act it out using funny voices or physically moving about, or they can describe what happens in simple prose, or they can use the game’s mechanical terminology and dice rolls to help them put thought into word.

So what’s with the dice? Ah, there’s where it comes back to being a game.  The setting we have chosen for our story’s heroes is one not without danger.  We use the dice to help add an element of the random into the story, an element of danger for the characters, reminding us that the best laid plans…

Anybody else have an opinion on the subject?  Leave it in the comments.  (As for what actually happens at the table, Zak over at D&D with Porn Stars had a really good post recently on how the game is actually played that I found quite amusing, if you’re interested.  Warning: site sometimes NSFW.)

Dried Nuts and Crossbow Bolts

Posted in Dungeons and Dragons, Game Notes with tags , , , , on March 12, 2010 by Angry Johnny

Here’s another post for my players (and for anyone who is interested in stuff like this).  Some of my players don’t have the 20 years of background that I do with hanging around a table, so they don’t know exactly what’s expected of them.  To make things easier ahead of time, I plan to write a few nuts-and-bolts posts like this to help them.  This one is about what to bring to the table.

Stuff for writing. Since this is a pen-and-paper game, mostly, you’ll need implements of writing and a surface upon which to write.  I highly recommend pencils and at least one notebook (more, if you’re into organizing).  A laptop computer might work, but they might take up too much space and might be time-consuming.  At my table, you’re allowed to try it for a session or two, to see if it’s a help or a hindrance (we have wireless internet, so a laptop might be useful in other ways, too – but no random surfing allowed!).  Either way, it’s a necessity that you be able to mark up your character sheet somehow to record changes in your character’s state, hit points, equipment, etc.  Also, it is highly encouraged that you take notes on what is happening or has happened in the storyline.  I’d rather not have to remind you all constantly of where we are in the plot.  I’m not going to force you to make maps, though.  I’ll help you out with that.

Books. If you’ve got ’em, bring ’em.  If you don’t, don’t worry.  I have the essentials and a few add-on type sourcebooks that we can all share.  If there’s a particular piece of data that you plan to utilize that is only found in one particular book, you might want to bring it.  If you found something online that you want to use, print it out (it’s easier to pass around than a laptop).

Dice. Most gamers have a set.  There is one set of community dice at my house, so having your own is not really a necessity.  If you want your own, there are game stores all over town that can help you out for a relatively good price (there’s even one right in my neighborhood), and you can get them in colors to suit your personal style.  My personal set – that no one is allowed to touch but me and my superstitious fingers – is a lovely speckled blue on blue, my girlfriend’s is a pearlescent pink with gold numbers.  The community set is a simple dark blue-purple.  And I’ve gotten off-track… where was I?

Ah yes, Minis. You don’t need one.  (“Minis” refers to miniature figurines that can be used as tokens on the game mat.)  If you want to get one for your character at some point, you are more than welcome to do so.  For starters, we’ll be using guitar picks as our minis.  I’ll be providing those, so don’t worry your head about it.

Snacks! We’re going to be sitting around for about four to five hours, so you might need something to nosh.  Presumably, everyone will have eaten a decent meal beforehand, but it’s understood that humans require fuel to operate.   We have water, and can be persuaded to part with a few diet sodas, but we’re not wealthy enough to feed four extra people.  What kinds of snacks?  Small, portable things work best.  Anything drippy or gooey or crumbly is probably a bad idea (gets on the game mat and then the tokens and dice get sicky).  Cookies, fruit, cheese snacks, nuts, popcorn – good choices.  Please no alcoholic beverages.  We’ll carve some room in the ‘fridge if you want to bring sodas and such.

Your best acting chops. You can leave your embarrassment at the door, it won’t be necessary.  Since part of this game is role-playing, you might be called on to act out certain scenes (verbally, anyway).  Think of it as a group storytelling exercise.  It might feel funny at first, but we’re going to ease into it.  And I love to try on my funny voices, so you’ll be hard-pressed to be more embarrassing than me.

I think that’s it.  I should note that this apartment is home to a small dog, so if you have allergies, you might want to take a Zyrtec beforehand.  He’s fairly hypo-allergenic – Hilary has mild allergies and isn’t bothered by him – but better safe than sorry, especially if you’re not used to him.

If any veteran players out there in the blogoshpere have any additions that might be helpful for my beloved newbs, I’d definitely appreciate them in the comments.  Thanks, all!

Teachin’ the Newb

Posted in Dungeons and Dragons, Game Notes with tags , , , , , on March 11, 2010 by Angry Johnny

Sorry for the lack of posts lately.  Hectic workdays are making it hard for me to think about what I want to post here.  But I’m going to just drop something in here and see how it goes.

This past Sunday, I had my first unofficial session of D&D.  Basically, my best friend came over to discuss things – he’s very eager to get the game going, I believe – and to help me teach the basics of the game to my girlfriend.  She’s a total newb.

I should qualify that statement.  No one in our planned group has ever played 4E, but half have played previous editions of D&D.  Almost everyone who will be playing has had some experience with computer RPGs or computer MMORPGs.  There is some basic “game mentality” present in just about everyone who is going to be at the table.  Except for my girlfriend, Hilary.

Hilary has not had the background in games that the rest of us have.  She’s played some casual computer games like Peggle and Bookworm, but nothing serious gamers would consider “advanced”.  She doesn’t read fantasy very often, nor sci-fi.  She does like action/adventure, sci-fi, and kung-fu movies – but isn’t the type to daydream about being the main characters.  She doesn’t play card games or board games or hopscotch.  And most importantly, she’s never tried to balance pretending to be an elf with managing mathematics while socializing with friends.

Since I want this experience to be fun for her, teaching her how to play without boring her is a bit of a challenge.

Here’s what we did with our first session:  my friend and I sat down in the kitchen/dining room and talked amongst ourselves for a little while.  We did this to get the “deep nerd” conversations out of the way while she was sitting in the next room over, surfing the internet.  After we had gotten the geek out of our system, we called her in.  She and I had printed up a character sheet for her the night before – I mostly made her character for her – so I decided to start by explaining all the intimidating numbers first.  To make them less intimidating, you see?

We started at the top of the character sheet with the basics.  Character name, level, class, race, etc.  She will be playing a female human cleric.  She had picked the basics previously, but I just filled in height/weight/age and such based on racial averages.  Of course, she decided that I had made her “fat”.  I think she was joking…

WotC has done a pretty good job with their official character sheets (those utilized by the Character Builder software).  Most of the numerics are subscripted with the formula that was used to obtain them.  This made the whole process a lot easier, I think.  After explaining what her Attribute scores were and how we got them and why, we went through each block of related statistics systematically.  It also helped to explain where the modifiers were coming from and why (+1 to Fortitude, Reflex, and Will come from her virtue of being human, for example).  She showed some curiosity about the Feats section and asked why I had chosen what I had chosen (because we hadn’t done much character background stuff yet, I had chosen a couple of feats based on character optimization, rather than role-playing).

Then we got to powers.  I thought it might be easier to show her what they were going to do in-game, so we laid out a battlemat, plopped a couple guitar picks (our “minis”) down, and broke out the dice.  Of course, explaining this requires explaining “actions”, so we gave the run-down.  Each player can do three actions per turn – one standard, one move, and one minor (and these can be traded down, but never up).  Movement is easiest to explain, so we got that one out of the way – in any given turn, a character can move up to her Speed in squares on the battlemat (basically).  Standard and minor are trickier.  Minor is little fiddly things that you can do – drink a potion, draw a weapon, stuff like that.  Minor is usually stuff that is not attacking the enemy.  Standard is more important stuff – using your attack powers, defending or healing a comrade.  She seemed to get all of this, or was practicing her nodding, so we decided to start rolling.

We explained each of her powers to her, and how attack rolls determined a hit/miss based on the defensive score of the attackee (just like the defensive scores on her character sheet).  Then I explained what each unique power did to the enemy and/or her allies, since she’s a cleric.  She made a few rolls of the twenty, scored a few hits, helped out a fictional comrade, and moved around a little.  I think she got it, but I don’t know if it’s fun yet.

We’re going to go over all this again during our first session (about a week and a half from now), with everyone else at the table.  Our first session is going to be making/printing characters, inventing character backgrounds, and then taking everybody through a combat encounter in which most of the learning will occur.  I think having this small session helped me understand how I want to explain this stuff to everybody else.  And I hope it helped Hilary to grasp the basics, which will give her more time for fun at the table.

Anybody out there ever have to give lessons of this sort?  How did you handle it?

I Never Wanted to Be a DM…

Posted in Dungeons and Dragons with tags , , , , , , , on March 5, 2010 by Angry Johnny

When Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons was released, I was in a place in my life where playing some D&D seemed like an extremely good idea.  I was in a job I liked, my finances were essentially secure, my home life was peaceful and beautiful.  It was time for me to have a hobby, and I knew just the one.  I hadn’t played D&D in years, but I had loved it back then and thought it would be great social exercise for me (my social calendar was a bit lacking at the time).

The new system had a certain appeal to me, since I work in computer gaming and there are many design similarities to what I was already doing for a living.  I picked up the new PHB and started looking for a group.  I wanted to play D&D, not DM,  so that meant I needed a group and a DM.  Well, in Austin, there are either very few people who want to be DM or they already have full groups.  Plus, it seems that people tend to play with people who are already in their circle of friends (and though I knew some people who would probably play, none of them wanted to DM – and I certainly didn’t).

I tried a couple of local groups that had a spot open, or were created out of essential strangers, but none of them felt like the group for me.  Sometimes the mix was just wrong, or the DM was heavy-handed about how the story should go, or there was a min/max munchkin present (it only takes one to ruin my day).  Plus, I found that I didn’t like being away from my girlfriend, house, and dog for an entire afternoon/evening (apparently, I’m quite attached to them).

I grew despondent and kind of gave up on the idea for a while.

Then one day, I was sitting here at my computer with nothing to do.  I had found this blog, and had been reading the backlogs of it, because it was so interesting (girls playing D&D seemed so novel to me – and cool, good-looking girls, no less).  My girlfriend was surfing on her laptop, the dog curled by her side, and we both kind of had a bit of cabin fever, having been cooped up most of the winter.  I thought to myself, “we need some kind of hobby that we can do together.”

Of course, lightning struck my brain right then.  And I died.  No, I had a rare flash of creativity.  I realized that if I acted as DM, I could introduce her to the hobby that I used to love, and at the same time, we could do it without leaving the house and dog that we are both very tethered to.  All that was left was for me to learn to DM and us to find a group.  Oh, and she had to agree to it.

Luckily, she agreed to it.  We decided to ask a friend of mine from work and his girlfriend to join us, because we thought having another “couple” there would be kind of cool.  (Plus, in my mind, I was still thinking about how cool it would be to play with girls at the table.)  They agreed, too.  We only needed two more to have a “perfect-sized” group.  We invited another couple, but found out they were no longer a couple (open mouth, insert foot).  But the woman from the couple wanted to play, so that left just one slot empty.  My girlfriend asked me why I hadn’t asked my best friend.  Honestly, it just hadn’t occurred to me, but seemed exactly the right idea.  He totally was into the idea, and so we had a full house – five players, one DM.

I really thought it was going to be harder to learn to DM.  I picked up the DMG at the local games-and-comics store, though, unwilling to be defeated by my anxiety.  To my surprise, WotC made it very easy.  The book had most of what I needed to know, and plenty of material was provided for me online.  It occurred to me that if I used published material, I could just learn the basics, then learn the rest as we played (or make it up).

The whole configuration isn’t what I originally pictured when I first wanted to play.  But now that I’m settling in to the idea, I think it’s going to be big fun regardless of what side of the screen I’m on.  Plus, if I can provide a space for my girlfriend and my friends to have fun in, that will really make my day (especially my girlfriend – I love her very much and am very happy to be able to share this thing that I find so much joy in).

So Why 4E?

Posted in Dungeons and Dragons with tags , , , , , on March 4, 2010 by Angry Johnny

I’ve been reading a lot of D&D blogs lately in preparation for running my own game.  And because I find them interesting.  But I’ve noticed that most of the blogs that I read are “old-school D&D” blogs (3.5 and earlier).  Sometimes, the Old School Renaissance folk can be pretty hard on 4E.  When I was a younger man, I had a lot of fun playing older versions of D&D – in fact, it was my first role-playing game.  But I have chosen to run 4E for my game.  So, why have I chosen 4E?

There’s a lot of little reasons, actually.  Most of them have to do with my players.  You see, I invited them to play the game with me.  They didn’t come looking for a DM.  Most of them have never played a tabletop RPG previously.  You can imagine that I want to make this as easy on them – and as fun! – as I possibly can.

The Dungeons and Dragons name is the first concern.  I could have invited them to play any system out there:  GURPS, White Wolf, d20 Heroes/Modern, Shadowrun, or any other game that is currently commercially available.  But if I had, they might not have known what I was talking about.  Or they might have some attached stigma in their minds associated with one or more of those specific games, or RPGs in general.  But when you say “Dungeons and Dragons” to a non-gamer, they know instantly what you’re talking about, and any stigma has worn off of that particular name now that more famous people are admitting to having played it (Vin Diesel, Stephen Colbert, many others).  When I asked them to play, they got very excited, like they’d been invited to a private club from which they’d been previously excluded.

But at this point, we could be playing any edition of D&D.  They just know that they are going to be playing D&D, not what edition, and likely, they don’t care.  But they can’t go to Borders or Barnes and Noble and pick up a 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook.  What’s in the stores right now is 4E.  If they like the game and want to purchase sourcebooks, they will have to purchase 4E books.  For that matter, if I want to purchase sourcebooks, 4E D&D is a lot easier for me to get hold of, too.

Also in consideration is my players’ histories.  Few of them have played tabletop RPGs before, but almost all of them have played online MMOs.  What they are used to is a limited set of “maneuvers” that any given character class is capable of.  4E D&D is similar.  Is it somewhat limiting to an experienced RPG gamer?  Absolutely.  Do I want to give my players the total freedom that previous editions gave?  No.  Not yet, anyway.  That kind of freedom could be seriously overwhelming to someone not used to it.  Do I hope that they’ll eventually start seeking it on their own?  Sure, if they want to.  And if they do, I’ll find ways to grant it to them.  Or maybe having the combat bits so easy will give them the freedom to explore other creative avenues that can be afforded by the game, like exploring, playing out dialog scenes, dealing with the minutiae of existing in the game world, whatever they find fun.

4E D&D is not perfect.  It has its problems, just like any system.  Just like any system, you can work around the bits you don’t like.  For me, it’s mostly just more convenient.  And it not a bad system, by any means.  Just very different from older editions.  Feel free to flame me in the comments now. 🙂

The Setting

Posted in Dungeons and Dragons, Game Notes with tags , , , on March 4, 2010 by Angry Johnny

This post is for my players to reference easily.  I’m just setting up the location and so forth for our upcoming game.  As many readers might note, it’s just the starter setting suggested by the 4E Dungeon Master’s Guide, with a few variations made entirely to suit me.  (Anyone familiar with Keep on the Shadowfell, please don’t post any spoilers in the comments. It’s going to be new to them.)

*****

The starting point for this adventure is Fallcrest.  Fallcrest is a town of about 500 people, counting outlying farms, situated on a bluff where trade goods on the river traffic have to be portaged, by hand or cart, up or down to avoid the waterfalls (see where they got the name?).  It’s also the crossroads of several major trade roads.  Woods, hills, fens, etc. are all within travel distance if you need them for character background.  The surrounding area is the Nentir Vale, named for the Nentir River that flows through.

About 200 years ago, the most recent human empire collapsed.  There followed about 100 years of chaos.  Since then, civilization has been making a slow comeback, though there is still no unifying empire or kingdom.  Fallcrest is positioned well for growth, due to the trade roads and major river, but civilization is only slowly returning at this point.  To the East is the Dwarven stronghold of Hammerfist (a slightly larger city, but mostly underground), to the Northwest is the small village of Winterhaven (where the first adventure will be).

The characters are going to start in Fallcrest.  The characters should all be about 16-20 years old, or their racial equivalent.  You probably grew up there, probably that’s how you know most of the other characters.  As children, the characters probably played together, since children tend to run with whoever is about their age, regardless of compatibility.  There was a guy there who would often tell stories of his travels in the tavern, filling the characters’ heads with tales of adventure (his name is Douven Staul).  Most of the characters probably would listen to him from time to time as children, whether they just went there, or had to sneak away to hear him, or whatever.  Notice I say “probably” in there a lot.  We can make exceptions to this for a character or two.

Since then, the characters have probably drifted apart somewhat, as the demands of low-civ society require able-bodied youths to start doing their occupation as soon as they are physically able.  The characters are not extraordinary – or at least don’t know it yet.  They are just youths in a semi-rural setting, mostly just beginning the occupations they will pursue for the rest of their lives (they think).  Adventure will be thrust upon them soon enough.

*****

The following races are common to the area:  humans and halflings, some half-elves.  Dwarves from the East are present, Elves and Eladrin from the surrounding forest and fey lands also.  Tieflings are present but uncommon, and Dragonborn are very rare.  (That’s the core rulebook races taken care of).  Expanded rulebooks:  Gnomes, Goliath, Half-Orcs are acceptable.  I do not like Deva and Shifter.  Anything I haven’t mentioned is unacceptable (this is our starter game, we’re going as basic as possible).

Any classes from the PHB and PHB2 are acceptable.  I only like Monk from PHB3 (psionics gets a little more complex than I want for this first go-round).  No classes from other rulebooks will be accepted at this time.  The following are easy to fit into the scenario:  Paladin, Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, Ranger, Druid, Bard, Warden, Invoker.  I can think of ways to work in the following, off the top of my head: Barbarian, Shaman, Sorcerer, Warlock, Warlord, maybe Monk.  Anything else, we can probably work with.  My girlfriend has already decided on Cleric, so that one’s taken (she’s my girlfriend, like I’m going to tell her “no”…).

QA Is My Hero

Posted in Computer Gaming with tags , , on March 3, 2010 by Angry Johnny

Let’s talk about Heroes and Villains for a moment.  I read a post on another blog a few days ago – and I’m sorry, but I can’t remember which blog right now – about the main differences between Heroes and Villains.  Essentially, the thesis was this:  Heroes have to wait for bad things to happen before they can do their thing, but Villains just do their thing.  I happen to agree.  Villains are active, Heroes are reactive.

Let’s apply this to QA and game development, shall we?  Designers are active.  They choose what they want to put into the game.  They choose when.  They choose how things will be implemented.  They just do their thing.  QA, on the other hand, are by necessity reactive.  QA can’t do anything unless something is added or changed.  Then they get to check whatever was added or changed and try to get it corrected (which is their thing).  QA are Heroes, by this analogy.

That’s not to say that Designers are Villains.  I think of Designers more like Mad Scientists who are trying to make the world a better place, but sometimes unintentionally cause harm.  Then the Hero has to come in, stop what they’re doing, then give a heartfelt lecture on unintended consequences.  At least, that’s how it happens in my story.

So remember, Designers, “QA is not the enemy”.  In fact, they are your Hero, even if you don’t know it.